Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Cameroonian Vacay Part II: The Overachiever’s Vacation

Or, being a tourist in “my own” country! (Continued from the previous blog, for anyone who actually reads more than one of my rambly blogs!)

Biking the Ring Road
This agenda item, a staple on any over-achieving agenda, was certainly Shawn’s idea! I’m so glad we did it! Biking has got to be one of the most thrilling ways I’ve ever viewed a country-side, in spite of the hit to the entire lower half of my body. Our plan was to spend 4 – 5 days on the bikes and make a complete circle (thus, the title Ring road) on the road north of Bamenda. When we started, I thought I was going to DIE. We’d taken a car to Kumbo, and hopped on the bikes from there. I had congratulated myself on the fact that taking a car to Kumbo meant we missed out on an entire day of uphill riding. The congratulatory mood lasted very briefly as the road out of Kumbo ascended at a much sharper grade, and for far more kilometers than my legs had requested. Fortunately, (and mainly for my sake!) we made a no-heroics pact, which meant either of us got to hop off the bike and walk whenever we felt the urge, or the nastiest of the steep hills required it. And Shawn gets mad props for having ridden a bike about 4 inches too small for him the entire time, and giving me the good big bike!

We made good time on both of the days we rode, and stayed first with a fellow PCV in Ndu, and then in a simple “hotel” in Misaje. The fact that the road is pictured as a main road on any Cameroonian map is a little alarming. The vast majority is red dirt, and usually only one lane. Some parts are so bumpy that, especially on the downhills, you are clutching your handlebars for dear life as your whole body is jarred. Totally worth it though :) The scenery varied from brilliant green tea plantations near Ndu, to cliff-side views after Nkambe, and jungly villages as we neared Misaje. The huge downhills after Nkambe were exhilarating but so demanding of attention, in that one wrong move could send you over the edge of all that lovely cliff scenery. Not the kind of close-up I want.

Some areas seemed completely isolated, nothing but the occasional Fulbé herder and his cows to block the road. In almost every village, we were greeted enthusiastically from the locals along the side of the road. I’m all for the Cameroonian love of greetings, but I had to keep my exuberant waving in check so as not to send myself careening off the bike (it almost happened once… not worth being that culturally-appropriate!) Many of our greetings were the classic Cameroonian statements of the obvious, “You are riding!” To which the best response is, yes, “We are riding!” And that’s how they roll here.

When we got into Misaje, we realized that the breaks on my bike were dying, and Shawn had a wobbly wheel, so we decided to just go for a hike and jump on a bus back to Bamenda instead of continuing the circuit.

The day we arrived in Misaje, I got a pleasant surprise—rain! Living up in the Sahel, I hadn’t seen it since October. The rains came to Misaje no less than 20 minutes after us—quel timing! The “hotel” where were staying had some running water, but seemingly not enough for both of us to take showers. And I was so filthy: sunscreen, bike grime, another layer of sunscreen, grunge from the road, sweat, some more muck just for good measure. So I wasn’t going to take any risks. While Shawn was in the shower, the rains were coming down in torrents, and I took full advantage of them. I should note that when it rains in Cameroon, life comes to a grinding halt. Don’t expect any fulfillment of prior obligations, on-time meetings, etc! So, yes, if any of the locals would have seen the nassara bathing in her undies outside in the pounding rain, they likely would have been scandalized… but everyone’s dignity remained intact and I’m proud to report I returned to a non-hazardous level of cleanliness. There’s something very satisfying about re-uniting your birthday suit with Mother Nature and her pouring rain. :)

Once clean, we went for dinner in an absolute hole-in-the-wall restaurant, and I was totally distracted by hearing Fulfulde for the first time since leaving the Extreme North. In a country where you can travel one hour in any direction and come across at least two other local languages, hearing Fulfulde at three days travel from home took me by surprise. But, the mountains that exist in the Northwest province are, in fact, a continuation of the same mountain chain where I live in the Extreme North. Although the Northwestern version is deeper and rolling, the Mandara Mountains, as they are called where I live up north, are craggy, smaller and rocky. The entire chain extends along the border between Cameroon and Nigeria. With the mountains, the Fulbé (or Fulfulde-speaking) people also spread along the border. While Bamenda seemed bustling, cosmopolitan, and relatively westernized, in the rural Northwest near the border, I re-found a comfortable sign from home in the Extreme North: boubous (aka: the man-dress)! As we distanced ourselves from Bamenda, I also noticed the women increasingly adopted a traditional way of dress: more pagne, less pants, and heads covered. At the end of our meal that night, I think the other diners in the restaurant were equally baffled to hear Fulfulde come out of my mouth when I told the waitress we were finished and asked for the bill. I love doing that!

After a few days to recover from the bike-fest, it was time for over-achieving endeavor #2:

Mount Cameroon
Let me just say, that mountain had me for lunch. And then it spit me out and had me again for leftovers. And no, I have never climbed a mountain before, in case you were wondering. Why on earth not start with the second-highest one on the African continent?!

Actually, climbing Mt. Cameroon is on pretty much every PCV’s to-do list and I’d been warned that my legs might not feel the same way for several days afterwards… Nevertheless, I was able to recruit a couple PCV friends, Lisa and Elyse, and so along with Shawn we made a fearless foursome. Pre-climb, we stocked up on lots of peanuts, avocados, bananas, hard-boiled eggs and digestive crackers. The climb lasted three days and two nights.

On day one, we went straight up the steepest face. We passed first through sweaty green jungle. Our guide was a great local guy, very knowledgeable, who stopped us multiple times to show us different plants used for food or medicinal purposes. I grabbed a few extra leaves of the plant used for gastro-intestinal distress. Just in case, you know. At 2,000 meters, we hit the tree line and emerged from the jungle. At times, the views were breathtaking. In front, all I could see was rock going up, up, up. And turning to look behind, all I could see below was cloud. Where the path was so steep behind us, it seemed as though the mountain just dropped off into nothingness. The view resembled that from an airplane. So many times, my climbing was just that—a four-wheel drive affair where my hands were grabbing onto any rock that seemed willing to help me up. As we reached higher and higher altitudes, I still felt like I was able to get enough air in my lungs, and just got used to my constant rate of panting.

The higher we climbed, the faster ominous clouds swept down along the mountain’s slope, with an intensity that rivaled only my desire to avoid said clouds and all their fabulous precipitation. Us vs. the clouds. (Spoiler alert: the clouds won.) Midway through the afternoon, Mother Nature gave us a fabulous bath. The lightning and rain had us hiding out in a hut along the trail for a good 2 + hours. Happily though, I’d swiped a book from my friend David’s house: 4,000 Questions to Get to Know Anybody and Everybody. And so while it poured outside, we huddled in with our questions and waited for the worst to pass. True we were all soaked, but still in good spirits. And by the way, would you rather be the President of the United States, or the world’s richest person? (Shawn and Elyse picked president; Lisa and I picked richest person. I’m hoping to go for a Bill Gates effect… and plan to contribute to the others’ campaigns!)

When we got to camp that night, we had a hot spaghetti dinner. While the noodles were a-cooking, Shawn and I went out to inspect the sunset, which was a gorgeous blaze of pinks and blues on the mountainside. Below, we could see lights from Buea, Limbe, and even as far off as the economic heart of the country, Douala. Malabo, an island that is part of country-in-disarray-next-door Equatorial Guinea, showed its peak through the clouds as well. That night I slept in clothes borrowed from almost every person in our entourage. (Living in the desert, I forgot that mountain-tops get COLD!!!) Thanks, team!

On day two, we all had the same sentiment—almost there, only a thousand more meters til the summit! Our goal of 4,095 meters waited patiently for us. I was planning to do a celebratory cartwheel upon arriving there. Ha! Arriving at the top, I must have looked like I’d just run a marathon—everything was dripping—my nose, my eyes tearing in the wind, at least it was too cold to sweat but cloud dew was everywhere. The peak was so narrow that I certainly would have made a rapid descent falling off the side of the mountain. So I saved the gymnastics for another day. And on top of that, the wind was so ferocious that I really almost lost my balance once just while walking a few feet!

Going down, I earned my Most Graceful 2009 award. Translation: I somehow can’t seem to stay on my feet on the downhills. Elyse and Lisa charged ahead and I was the pokey one in the back. At times, it literally seemed as though we were skiing. The small lava rocks just gave out from under you, so with every step you slid down a good two feet further. We lost the vast majority of the altitude in that first afternoon coming off the summit. Mt. Cameroon erupted as recently as 2001, and you can see spectacular lava flows—vast grassy fields interrupted by a now-hardened stream of black lava rock. We crossed several small peaks and deep craters, landscape unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.

We’d been warned that the second day was the longest. But I had no idea how downhill does not feel good—knees aching on trails so narrow that I’m walking as though on a balance beam. I declared to the group that I’d discovered I must naturally walk with a very wide stance, cause these skinny trails were killing me! We finally arrived at a campsite, the sun was beginning to set, and feeling pretty desperate, I asked our guide how much longer. “One more hour,” was his perky answer. I was ready to just plow on through and be done, and looking to rouse the troops and be gone. I was getting a little impatient, until I realized (why am I always the last one to realize these things?!) that the porters had taken off their shoes and socks, our guide was lounging, and I was the only one who hadn’t realized the guide was kidding—we were already done for the day. With the last energy I had I squawked at our guide for being so mean, and he just laughed. Speaking of our guide and porters, unsurprisingly, I should note that these dudes who climb this mountain for a living do it in flip-flops, about once a week. Damn.

Day three got us off that mountain, hallelujah! The trail flattened out, and we were traversing mostly jungle that gave way to small family-owned plots of banana trees. Shawn generously lent me his iPod for the last section of the hike, so I got a fabulous combo of his favorite Filipino pop music interspersed with the podcasts of Dan Savage, a sex-advice columnist that had me cracking up. And when I laugh it gets dangerous, I tend to fall off the trail. And that’s how we came out of the jungle… I don’t have any pics at the moment, but will try to add some once I can!

La fin
As for the rest of the trip, I finally got to indulge my boozing-on-the-beach habit  in Limbe, one of Cameroon’s two beach towns. Our last stop was Douala, where Shawn caught his flight out and we had some other adventures... It was weird to take my bus back to Yaoundé sitting next to some random Cameroonian stranger, after spending collectively 63.5 hours next to Shawn in Cameroon’s transport (yes, I counted. :) He was a super travel buddy!

Coming home
An interesting note from my trip home: I was on the bus north from Ngaoundéré to Maroua, the main axis through half the country. Suddenly, the bus screeched on the brakes for no apparent reason. All the startled passengers looked out the window to see, sitting calmly in the opposite lane, a baby that looked no older than a year, complete with a cute bonnet. How that baby was not burning its bum on the hot pavement is beyond me, but WHAT is a baby doing sitting in the middle of a main national highway?!

Two men jumped out the bus, one to scoop up the baby, and the other headed straight for a woman sleeping in the shade under a nearby tree. Whether that was the mother or not, who knows, but the guy from my bus smacked her across the face and lit into her! I don’t know which shocked me more. It’s true that people here seem to feel a responsibility for raising other people’s children: the “takes a whole village to raise a child” concept. The same applies to disciplining others, of any age, seemingly.

Lastly, when I finally arrived home, I was nervous I was going to be lonely, since I’d had constant companionship for almost a month! Two minutes after getting off my bus, I ran into my friend Aboubakar, and when I got to my house, my neighbor Aissatou came running out of her compound with her arms wide open, “Fleuraaaaaaaaaaaaange! A warti!” Not gonna lie, I sure don’t get that kind of treatment in the Etats-Unis; I could get used to this. :)


Kristen said...

i LOVE reading about your adventures!! you should write a book!!

Estera said...

Makes me wish we climbed Duarte Peak in Dominican Republic!! Great stories!!